Interesting conversation with a security guard who commented on the way employees dressed. “I can always tell the people in power,” she said, “by their clothes. Even if they’re casual, they look put together.” As we stood and talked, she’d nod as executives and other workers leaving for the evening passed by, and she offered her standard goodnight.
“You see?” she said to me about a woman in a simple suit. “She looks like she has authority.” I took a mental note—that person was NOT one in authority, but an employee who frequented the president’s office to discuss company business.
“Some of these people—they look like they couldn’t be bothered to comb their hair. They look terrible. People used to dress up for work. They dressed for the position they were in. None of the folks from X company look like they care about their work. Or their lives.” She was right: numerous workers were streaming out the door, many of them looking as though they had been working in the yard or were about to help a friend pack to move to a new house.
You may think this is a good thing. It’s certainly very egalitarian when everyone looks as dressed down—or as slovenly—as the next person. But it also makes those who think about their attire stand out like glow lights. They look competent, professional, and ready for something, while others look ready for bed. Come to think of it, they're glowing too—with the wrong message.
You may not care about how you look, but do you really think no one notices? If the security guard notices, perhaps your boss does, too.
We hear so much about the need for confidence in order to succeed, and I won’t dispute it—when you feel good about what you’re doing, how much you know, and your level of assurance as to your ability and worth is strong, you stand a far better chance at moving forward than someone cowering in a cubicle, wondering if it’s safe to come out and say something.
But sometimes, there’s just no accessing that confidence we’re supposed to be able to muster up. We’ve had a bad day, or a tough month, or a really terrible year (or more) and the confidence chip is just worn out. That’s when you have to shine it on, as we used to say—pull together all your skills in pretending and just go for it. I say you have to give that Academy Award-winning performance. Act as though there’s a camera trained on you and Steven Spielberg has just called out, “ACTION!”
We all have the ability to pull it together in this way. We did it as children—we became princesses or Indian chiefs or whatever it was we were playing at the time. As I remember, I played teacher quite effectively, long before I knew how to read. I lined up all my stuffed animals in chairs and told them to open their books and read with me, and I spit out what I thought words on paper sounded like, which was some sort of gibberish-y soundings. I wasn’t a teacher. I didn’t even know the connection between written and spoken language, but by golly, I pretended like I was Teacher of the Year.
I haven’t lost that inner child, and neither have you. When you’re faced with something that throws you, pretend you know what to do. Ask yourself, “What would I do if I actually KNEW what to do?” Play it out as though you’re [insert favorite actor here] and play the part. Daniel Craig pretends he’s James Bond quite effectively, and for all we know he’s painfully shy and kind of dumb. Lucy Liu is playing a version of Watson in CBS’s updated Sherlock Holmes drama, but she’s not a surgeon—and she’s not a vicious fighter like she played in “Kill Bill,” either. Maybe she’s really the quiet type who has a lot of cats; we don’t know. I’ve met recognizable actors who play very commanding roles, such as judges, and sound tremendously smart on television, but in “real life” they are as ditzy and as clueless as the rest of us.
So put on your white gloves and throw up those jazz hands, people! “Fake it ‘til you make it,” the saying goes, but I just say pretend—and get ready to make that acceptance speech when they call out your name as best supporting actor in a dramatic role.